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Reinforcing Nigeria’s digital-first approach for economic prosperity

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Nigeria has over the years realized the imperative of using technology to steer economic growths amidst global economic uncertainties and swift move toward automation and waves of digital evolution. As such responsibilities rest on the shoulder of some of its agencies and ministries, observers are particularly interested in the contributions to the agenda by the Nigerian Information Technology Development Agency (NITDA) whose activities and initiatives are here examined by BANJO OLANIRAN

The quest for digital transformation is a vital goal for countries across the world and Nigeria, world’s most populous black nation and Africa’s largest economy, is not an exemption. The drive for automation and digitization of operations across sectors is captured under e-governance and digital economy agenda in the country.

As Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs) of the government roll up their sleeves to get the work done in respect of the country’s digital-first approach to engendering economic prosperity, specific attention has been turned to NITDA, being the government agency saddled with the sole responsibility of developing the digital space footprint for the good of the country.

As many challenges continue to beef up around oil which is the mains source of revenue for the Nigerian government, experts have continued to present technology as the next cash cow for the survival of the country, if harnessed to its full potential.

This prevalent situation further puts NITDA at the helms of affairs as an agency under the Federal Ministry of Communications and Digital Economy, mandated according to the NITDA Act 2007 to provide guidelines to facilitate the establishment and maintenance of appropriate models for information technology and systems application and development in Nigeria for public and private sectors, urban-rural development, the economy and the government. This is aside 13 other functions contained in the Act.

In the last one year when the agency came under a new leadership led by Kashifu Inuwa Abdullahi as its Director-General, the country’s drive to digital economy has also been put on the high gear as it is now identified as a critical mandate of President Muhammadu Buhari’s administration.

Speaking recently on the journey since his investiture in August 20, 2019, Inuwa said as a person who is open to new approaches and strategies, with the experiences he had gained for the last 15 years in the IT sector covering the private and the public sector and through unceasing study, he had led the NITDA team to work diligently to ensure the continuous development of the IT sector in Nigeria over the last 11 months.

The Digital Economy Drive

The journey to a digital economy in Nigeria took more definite shape on October 23, 2019 when Federal Government rechristened the Communications Ministry to the Federal Ministry of Communications and Digital Economy, a move intended to broaden the focus of the ministry and agencies under it.

This was just about the same time that the World Bank urged Nigeria in a report titled Nigeria Digital Economy Diagnostic Report to accelerate its pace to take on the digital economy status by harnessing its potentials to the full capacity.

Launching of NDEPS by the President

Another epochal event regarding digital economy in the country is the laudable launch of the National Digital Economy Policy & Strategy (NDEPS), a policy document launched by President Buhari November last year to stimulate quick and focused transformation of the traditional economy to a digital one and deliver its attendant benefits to the Nigerian people.

In NITDA’s effort to drive digital economy in Nigeria, its Director General said that even prior to the re-designation of the Federal Ministry of Communications, to include Digital Economy, NITDA had achieved a lot in that regard, through the implementation of a roadmap for the development of the Nigerian IT sector which consists of seven pillars that are in alignment with the eight pillars of the NDEPS and the Nigeria IT Policy.

This reflects in the number of initiatives that the agency has so far advanced from August 2019 to date. NITDA has launched and is already implementing at least six specific initiatives that will give boost to digital economy in the country.

The programmes include Nigeria e-Government Interoperability Framework (Ne-GIF); Nigeria Cloud Computing Policy (NCCP); Nigeria ICT Innovation and Entrepreneurship Vision (NIIEV); Framework and Guidelines for ICT adoption in Tertiary Institutions; Guidelines for Nigeria Content Development ICT as amended; and Data Protection Implementation Framework.

According to Kashiful, NITDA is giving impetus to the drive to enable the country have its fair share of the global economy which is estimated to hit $23 trillion by 2025.

“Furthermore, we have different IT project interventions that we have carried out across the country in the last one year – 80 Digital Capacity Training Centres (DCTCs) with E-Learning facilities, 6 IT Hubs, 6 IT Community Centres, 4 IT Innovation & Incubation Parks, and 3 IT Capacity Training Centres – all with the aim of bridging the digital divide and providing access to the unserved and underserved population,” the NITDA boss has said.

Digital capacity building

NITDA’s mandate, as stipulated in the Act that established it 13 years ago, the agency is expected to raise the standard of technical knowledge base for the country through its policies and initiatives, particularly by leveraging on the country’s youth population.

The World Bank said in its report that as the biggest economy in Africa with one of the largest youth populations in the world, Nigeria is well-positioned to develop a strong digital economy. This would have a transformational impact on the country, and now NITDA is harnessing that.

A capacity building event organised by NITDA

In the last one year, the agency has been up and doing with series of trainings and capacity building engagements organized solely or in collaboration with strategic partners to expose Nigerians to emerging skills.

This can be seen in its initiatives cited earlier such as the 80 DCTCs with e-learning facilities, IT Hubs, IT Community Centres, among others.

“Our initiative – the Technology Innovation and Entrepreneurship Support Scheme is one of the initiatives we have towards talent development.

“Furthermore, we are in discussion with Microsoft Corporation on the Global Skilling Initiative (GSI). It is an initiative aimed at helping 25 million people worldwide who have lost their jobs due to the COVID-19 Pandemic to re-skill in in-demand technical and tech-enabled jobs in the digital economy,” according to Inuwa.

Cushioning pandemic pains

Experts have described the incursion of the Coronavirus pandemic as a double edged sword that crash global economy on the one hand, and gives each nation the opportunity to explore IT tools and solutions in the course of rebuilding its economies.

This general belief resonates with Kashifu’s admonition of Nigerians to think digital first and look more in the direction of automation and digitisation of operation in order to survive the pandemic and then thrive prosperously after.

While other government agencies are dealing with the matter in diverse dimensions, NITDA, at its own end of the spectrum, has chosen the use of technology solutions in ways that can help in rebuilding each sector, create more opportunities and permanently re-orientate Nigerians to think digital.

Speaking on some of the initiatives of the agency to help beat COVID-19 hands down, Inuwa has highlighted some of the programmes and initiatives it had introduced since February 27 when the country recorded the index case for the virus.

“You may have followed some of our initiatives such as the Tech4COVID19 Initiative. This initiative is set to measure the impact of COVID-19 on the tech ecosystem and proffer solutions especially for startups.

“The Committee we set-up has come up with a Strategic Plan to ensure we retain about 100,000 ICT Jobs and create an additional 30,000 in the Post COVID-19 Era,” he said.

Another programmed designed by NITDA to fight pandemic is its Virtual Startup Clinic in which Startups were gathered, mostly young people to meet with mentors, successful entrepreneurs, investors, industry specialists, business consultants and hub operators with the goal of solving problems and challenges they were facing. The programme was repeated twice within a timeframe of one month.

As the world keeps scampering for ingenious solutions to COVID-19, NITDA also introduced Nigeria COVID-19 Innovation Challenge, an indigenous online innovation challenge held to meet solve the puzzles society is facing as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the challenge, five startups with highly innovative ideas were selected for the final challenge and three of them were selected for further incubation. A support fund of N1 million, ₦750,000 and ₦00,000 were won by the 1st, 2nd and 3rd winners respectively.

The quest to deal with the pandemic decisively also triggered another idea, the NITDA Technology Innovation and Entrepreneurship Support Scheme initiative. The scheme is designed to support startups and hubs across the country.

“With over 120 hubs in Nigeria, we are finalizing plans to ensure rapid intervention is provided for hubs and startups based on competence and carefully selected criteria,” Kashifu said.

He added that the agency is sustaining its SMART Agric Project, where it engages farmers and focus on using precision/smart farming to ensure significant improvement in crop yield, quality of farm produce, efficiency and productivity; increased profit margin, harvest forecast, sales of farm produce and eco-friendly agriculture practice.

“During this pandemic, we have engaged 130 farmers on this Project. Furthermore, we setup and launched the NITDA Academy, a platform for virtual learning where thousands of young Nigerians can have access to a wide range of educational courses and tools online,” he added.

Turning software to goldmine

According to NITDA DG, Nigeria has come a long way from being a net importer of software into a significant hub for the development of talent for software development in Africa.

This is evident in the value of investments that comes into Nigeria’s startup ecosystem due to the successes of mostly software-powered applications developed by incredibly smart Nigerians. This can be seen in the growth and capacities harnessed in the country’s technology hubs, mostly around Lagos and Abuja.

Record shows that Nigeria is indeed among the top three countries in Africa, attracting the largest investment from Venture Capitalists for its flourishing Technology Start-ups and Hubs.

Interestingly, Nigeria occupied the first position with a total investment of US $747 Million, followed by Kenya with a total investment of US $564 Million and Egypt that attracted a total investment of US $211 Million.

Also, there are numerous software houses churning out software to support banking, commerce and government processes in Nigeria.

This, according to Inuwa, is a testament to the ingenuity of Nigerians developing software to almost sufficiently meet local needs.

He however, noted that Nigeria must strive to become net exporters of software by developing its model to produce more software engineers and find suitable markets for these talents.  According to him, this is a way to reinforce the country’s digital-first approach for economic bounty.

“One way is to prepare to take advantage of the Africa Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), which provides the opportunities for Africa to improve intra-Africa trade generally and trade in services particularly.  Nigerian Software will benefit immensely from an improved atmosphere in trade-in services.

“This is important, considering that we already have all the ingredients needed to succeed. There is also the need to continue to incentivize software developers through lower taxes, subsidized development of talent and to create a pipeline of jobs that can be offered locally,” he said.

Experts believe that this will lead to the development of proprietary solutions that can be standardized and sold as services to other countries in Africa or the rest of the world for significant foreign exchange (FOREX).

“In an effort to consolidate these efforts, we have a series of initiatives aimed at providing a conducive environment and support for the Start-up Ecosystem,’ Kashifu said.

“Our initiative – the Technology Innovation and Entrepreneurship Support Scheme is one of the initiatives we have towards talent development. Furthermore, we are in discussion with Microsoft Corporation on the Global Skilling Initiative (GSI). It is an initiative aimed at helping 25 million people worldwide who have lost their jobs due to the COVID-19 Pandemic to re-skill in in-demand technical and tech-enabled jobs in the digital economy,” the DG said.

Securing the Online Space

Providing watertight protection for online activities is critical to promoting digital economy and automation lest the country will be at the mercy of cyber attackers. As revealed by a cyber security report in 2018, Nigerian businesses lost more than $800 million to the scourge and another report in 2019 said 87 per cent of businesses and corporate bodies in the country have suffered data breaches and cyber attacks.

Steering Nigeria clear of such losses must have informed NITDA’s various initiatives in the area, particularly, as the record of such activities in the last one year has shown.

Between then and now, NITDA has sustained effort on a country-wide adoption of the Nigeria Data Protection Regulation (NDPR) to block loopholes in data management and prevent data breach and cyber attack incidence.

The agency has also continued to educate Nigerians on ways to operate in the cyber space without falling victims of prowling dangers.

It will be noted that the drive against cyber criminals got a fillip in less than two weeks after Abdullahi took over the mantle of NITDA leadership when he summoned an emergency meeting with critical stakeholders to brainstorm on the pressing issue.

In addition to this, NITDA has proven itself the watchdog of the cyber space for the safety of Nigerian entities online as the agency has been seen monitoring activities of perpetrators and exposing them and their plans.

During COVID-19 alone, no fewer than five of such activities were reported by the agency as it monitored and unmask malicious websites misinforming the public that Federal Government has approved the disbursement of funds under a fictitious vote called “Lockdown Funds”, and direct applicant to fill a form online in order to receive your share of the money.

The orientation Nigerians are getting from NITDA is helping them to avoid mistakes that can cost them dearly and at the same time, the level of confidence to adopt more IT and Internet tools is rising as more people learn more fundamentals from the agency.

Last Line

Putting Nigeria in line with global move towards digitization, automation, e-governance and the ultimate digital economy agenda calls for synergy among stakeholders in the private and public sectors. The public sector is however expected to engender a conducive environment with its policies and initiatives as foundational structure for private sector players to key into and build on. This has been aptly demonstrated by NITDA in the reviewed last one year period when INUWA was appointed by President Buhari as the DG of the agency.

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